How two women electrical engineers use their seat at Superpedestrian’s workbench
Kelly and Teagan on how diverse teams beget more diverse teams and make better products
posted by: Jamie Perkins, Director of Communications
At Superpedestrian, we want our company to reflect the cities we serve, because we believe having different people from different backgrounds collaborating together makes us better at serving those cities.
My ears perked up when I learned recently that our electrical engineering team is predominantly women. I had a conversation with Kelly and Teagan, two Senior Electrical Engineers, about the advantages of working on a diverse team, how engineering and tech companies can support women in the field, and what advice they have for young women or women just entering the field.
What are the advantages to working on a diverse team?
Kelly: People bring different ideas and concerns to the table that wouldn’t necessarily get brought up in a homogenous group. It’s also a bonus to work on a team where you feel accepted and listened to — I can focus on my actual job of doing engineering work and feel confident that I’ll be listened to, not waste my time fighting to be heard or worrying about how I’m perceived.
Teagan: Diverse people bring diverse ideas. To me, the way to get the best ideas is to have people with both different professional experience and different personal experience. A lot of people view engineering as a “hard” discipline where it’s individual thought work is a right answer and wrong answer, and for some parts of the job that’s true. However, it’s also much more than that. I spend 2+ hours a day in meetings working on concepts and specifications, which require you to consider any number of factors from “who will use this product” to “how do you maintain/replace parts in this product.” These end up being creative discussions, and a variety of backgrounds and viewpoints at the table will always help you better explore the full solution space and come down to a great solution.
What makes Superpedestrian a good place for women to work?
Teagan: Compared to previous places I’ve worked and places friends work, we do not tolerate toxic behavior. We have robust HR training and support from our managers to speak up about issues, and interpersonal conflicts are prevented or fixed. We have a slack channel that allows us to get to know other women in the company and develop relationships with each other across various teams in the company. I know that for my part, I do my best to help my coworkers be heard when someone is not listening to them, and ensure that solutions are crafted by the best person for the problem, not the one with the loudest voice. Generally, we try to structure meetings and decision making processes to allow everyone to have a chance to give input.
Kelly: For my team at least, it’s all about the people. I was one of the only women on my team when I first started, and when I was looking for jobs, I had originally wanted to join a team with more women engineers. Unsurprisingly, that was difficult to find. However, the team at Superpedestrian still felt inclusive and I think it’s become even more so while I’ve been here. I think even when there are few women on a team, other evidence of diversity is, for me, a good indicator of a friendly environment. Finally, for women specifically, I think at a certain point you can reach critical mass — it’s not always easy to join a team as the only woman, but joining a team that already has three or four other women can be a big draw.
How can we and other companies build a pipeline for women in your field?
Teagan: I’ve been spending some time thinking about this recently! There are two orgs that I do a little work with looking at this type of thing: the Society of Women in Engineering (SWE) and Out in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (oSTEM). Both of these orgs are pretty focused on universities and young professionals, SWE for women and oSTEM for LGBTQ+ people. There are also orgs for BIPOC engineers/scientists (National Society of Black Engineers, American Indian Science and Engineering Society, and many more), which I’m not involved in because I’m not a member of those communities. In my opinion, this type of org is super important to support/work with to solve this problem over time.
Kelly: I’m a strong believer that the issue with the STEM pipeline for women and minorities is near the end of the pipeline, not the beginning. There’s plenty of work and motivation to get women into STEM fields, there’s a lot less done to keep them there. It’s exhausting to go into a field and spend years in an environment where you’re a minority or, frequently, just on your own and often that environment, at best, overlooks and dismisses women (and other non-cis white male groups) or, at worst, is outright hostile.
I’ve always liked my actual, technical job and the work I do, but I’ve had times where I’ve wanted to do something else because the day to day environment was making me miserable. There are still very few women managers and mentors for young (or young-ish) women in the industry. So — creating an inclusive and friendly environment, which often means hiring more women. If you’re a company that only has male engineers, most women aren’t going to assume that’s a friendly environment. Promoting women to leadership positions and supporting them there. Not applicable to me personally, but making sure there are good parental leave policies and schedule flexibility for things like childcare, even factoring in the costs of childcare into salaries.
What words of advice or encouragement do you have for younger women or women just entering the field?
Teagan: You’re allowed to speak up. If someone doesn’t listen to you and doesn’t explain why, or is overly rude to you, talk to your manager. If your manager doesn’t listen, talk to HR.
Where can we still do better?
Kelly: Many engineering teams still have few or no women, and teams are overwhelmingly still pretty white. Hopefully as balance increases, that hiring becomes easier. In general, I am frequently frustrated by the tech industry’s empty gesture approach to equity — rainbow logos in June or changing outdated terminology. I am not against doing those things by any stretch, those are things that should be done, but the action for many companies stops there. Personally (and some people may feel differently!), terminology bothers me a lot less than being talked over in every meeting or being paid less for my work. We should always be pushing ourselves to make hard policy or team culture changes, and not just stop at the easy things.